Art From The Holocaust

A new exhibition in Berlin explores the grim realities of life for Jews in Nazi camps and ghettoes.

A historic new exhibit, Art from the Holocaust, opened in the rear wing of the German Historical Museum in Berlin last week. For the first time ever, art from the collection of Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Museum is being shown outside in Germany. The exhibit features 100 works, mostly drawings and paintings, by Jewish inmates of labour camps, ghettoes and concentration camps. Many of the works portray the dark realities of day-to-day life in Nazi imprisonment. The fact that the works survived to the present day is, in most cases, a miracle: many were hidden or smuggled out at great risk by friends of the artists.

The show, which is timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Germany and Israel, comes at a moment of growing concern about the rise in anti-Semitism across Europe. As Angela Merkel opened the exhibit on Monday, she told reporters that she hoped the exhibit would send a message to new arrivals to Germany from countries “where hatred of Israel and Jews is widespread”. 

But the works are also, regardless of their current political context, deeply moving testaments to human resilience and the power of art, and, as Walter Smerling, the show’s co-curator with Eliad Moreh-Rosenberg points out, aesthetically powerful works on their own terms. The curators winnowed down the selection from a shortlist of several hundred. “We selected works according to artistic considerations, and chose works that provoked us and made us wonder what story was behind the image,” says Smerling, who is also the head of the Foundation of Art and Culture.He was asked to explain the stories behind some of their selections……….

 Pavel Fantl, The Song is Over (1941-1944)

This coloured drawing by Pavel Fantl is one of the few works in the exhibit that shows the Nazis themselves. “When I saw this work, it was immediately a must-have,” says Smerling. Fantl, a doctor who was born in Prague in 1903, was able to paint secretly in the Theresienstadt ghetto, in occupied Czechoslovakia, thanks to a Czech policeman who gave him the materials he needed. Pavel Fantl

“He portrays Hitler as a clown,” Smerling explains, “and the instrument on which he played the melodies with which he deceived an entire people, is on the floor, destroyed, with blood on his hands.” He adds: “You have to imagine his fearlessness and resistant sense of humour – to criticise the person responsible for his situation shortly before death.” Fantl was deported to Auschwitz, along with his wife and son, and murdered by the Nazis in January 1945. A Czech worker later smuggled his works out of the ghetto and concealed them in a wall. (Credit: Yad Vashem Art Museum, Jerusalem)


 Felix Nussbaum, The Refugee (1939)

Nussbaum, the best-known artist in the exhibit, was arrested in Belgium in 1940 after which he escaped and went into hiding in Brussels with his wife. His painting The Refugee shows the isolation of the wandering German Jew. “In the painting, he asks himself, ‘Where can I go in this world, where can I live, where can I work and exist?’” says Smerling. Nussbaum sent the painting to his father in Amsterdam, and after the murder of Nussbaum’s father in Auschwitz in 1944, it was transferred to private hands and sold at auction. Felix Nussbaum The Refugee 1939

“The painting hints at our current time, by pointing to the position of the refugee asking himself where he can go,” says Smerling, “today we have many people asking the same thing.” Nussbaum was ultimately murdered in Auschwitz in 1944 at the age of 39, together with his wife. (Credit: Yad Vashem Art Museum, Jerusalem)

Nelly Toll, Girls in the Field (1943)

Nelly Toll is the only surviving artist from the exhibition. Born in Lviv in what is today Ukraine, she painted this image at the age of eight while being hidden by a Christian family with her mother. Nelly Tolls

The painting depicts the freedom she yearns for. “It was important for me to get to know the artist and talk to her,” says Smerling. Toll came to Berlin from her home in New Jersey to attend the opening of the exhibit, and received a warm welcome from Angela Merkel. “It was a very nice symbol,” says Smerling, about the encounter. (Credit: Yad Vashem Art Museum, Jerusalem)

Bedrich Fritta, Rear Entrance (1941-1944)

Of the more than 140,000 people deported to the Theresienstadt Ghetto between November 1941 and May 1945, approximately 120,000 died. Bedrich Fritta was born in Bohemia in 1906 and was sent to Theresienstadt before being murdered in Auschwitz in 1944. Bedrich Fritta

He and his group of fellow ghetto artists bricked their works into walls before their arrest. “The half-open gate is a metaphor for death, there is no visible alternative, the only way out is into the darkness,” says Smerling. “He shows architecture and empty nature as a stage for an event that is itself invisible.” (Credit: Yad Vashem/Gift of the Prague Committee for Documentation)


Karl Bodek and Kurt Conrad Löw, One Spring (1941)

Smerling and his co-curator made One Spring the exhibit’s central image despite its tiny size. A collaboration between two artists interned in the Gurs Camp in southern France, the painting shows a butterfly on barbed wire with a distant view of the mountains on the Spanish border. Karl Bodek and Kurt Conrad Löw, One Spring (1941)

“I found it incredibly impressive that two people made such a small painting. It represents their self-assertion as people and artists, and articulates their will to survive and their hope for the future.” Kurt Löw, from Vienna, was ultimately able to flee into Switzerland from France, but Bordek, from Chernivisti, was sent to Auschwitz and murdered. “One of them ended up with the role of the butterfly, the other did not.” (Credit: Yad Vashem Art Museum, Jerusalem)

Leo Haas, Transport Arrival, 1942

Haas, who survived the war, was drafted by the Theresienstadt ghetto’s self-administration to make architectural drawings for its construction management. “But he also created these ink representations that are very composed and arranged, like this representation of a transport,” says Smerling. Like Nussbaum, Haas used the motif of the birds of prey to suggest the ominous presence of death.

Leo Haas, Transport Arrival, 1942He also painted the letter ‘V’ in the bottom left-hand corner of the painting, a symbol of underground resistance. “What an incredible image, you see death and the organisation of death before you, and you still think about victory.” (Credit: Yad Vashem/ Gift of the Prague Committee for Documentation)



13 Comments Add yours

  1. Ellen Hawley says:

    At a time when the world is turning its back on refugees, the question “Where can I go in this world” has a powerful resonance. Thank you for this post.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you kindly for the nice words Ellen.


  2. Reblogged this on Art by Rob Goldstein and commented:
    from artinmanyforms


  3. jilldennison says:

    This is a beautiful post … would you mind if I re-blog it? Thank you so much for this … it brought tears to my eyes, and at the same time, I smiled to think that these artists live on through their work.


    1. Thank you Jill by all means reblog it & thank you kindly for your lovely words & greetings from Co.Cork🍀

      Liked by 1 person

      1. jilldennison says:

        I just did! Many thanks … I am certain my readers will enjoy this.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. These are heart-wrenching and powerful. I’m not sure I’m equipped with the proper words to describe how they move me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My sentiments exactly,currently there is art emerging that contains much sorrow & hurt.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We can grieve when looking at the pictures but we could never possibly understand what those beloved people endured. I’m not of the Jewish faith but almost all of my friends are. I was raised in the church (although I no longer go) and I knew that Jesus was a Jew and the Jews were God’s “chosen people.”
        I once asked my granny if I wasn’t special because I wasn’t a Jew. She smiled and said “as long as you follow His word, you are special.”

        Liked by 1 person

  5. jilldennison says:

    Reblogged this on Filosofa's Word and commented:
    Last week, a new art exhibit opened in the German Historical Museum in Berlin. Its title? Art From The Holocaust. A blogger who I only discovered yesterday, thanks to Rob Goldstein, has written a beautiful tribute to this exhibit, complete with some wonderful pictures. This is a bit outside my normal subject matter, but I thought it was very tasteful and beautifully written, and I wanted to share it with my readers. Many thanks to artinmanyforms for this post, and for permission to share!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Gronda Morin says:

    Dear Art In Many Forms.
    Thank you for sharing this art and its existence. Its a reminder how the spirit can soar in the midst of horror and evil, and we get to witness its fruit.

    I hope this exhibit is shown in other countries.

    Again thanks, Gronda

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear Gronda,When I was putting it on the Art In Many Forms blog there was a lot of sadness & hurt involved what horrors those gentle souls endured,we should never forget.,Thank you kindly for your kind words & best wishes from Cork,regards Pat Carroll , AIMF

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.